Italian Beef — the Chicago staple is gaining popularity
I’ve been fortunate to have worked in and traveled to many fantastic places around the country and I just love the fact that many different areas have unique specialty dishes that are known only to their region. It makes traveling back to those areas a time filled with anticipation to be reunited with each of those culinary delights.
Think about your favorite foods from your old neighborhood. Pennsylvania has their scrapple. Cincinnati has “goetta” –– something that is referred to as poor man’s sausage made from steel cut oats, onions, seasoned ground beef and sausage, all cooked down then laid out and chilled. It can then be grilled or fried up like sausage patties. Coney Island dogs along with New York-style cheesecake are a couple of items that have actually made their way out of their neighborhoods.
Hot wieners seem to be found exclusively in Rhode Island, which in my best opinion are a spin-off of the Coney Island hot dog. A hot wiener all the way means it has mustard, the famous meat sauce, minced onion and celery salt. I actually started offering those many years ago in my Massachusetts pizza shops and was pleasantly surprised to sell 70 to 100 of them each day and mostly as “add-ons” to regular orders.
Maine is famous for their lobster rolls, which is a hot dog bun packed with chilled, cooked lobster meat with just a dab of mayo. Philly cheesesteaks are one of the most popular regional menu items that have made it BIG in other parts of the country. Philly folks who know and love that sandwich realize that just because operators in other parts of the country are selling a Philly cheesesteak, doesn’t mean they are doing it in the authentic way they should.
Chicago is known for its specialties including Chicago dogs, deep-dish pizza and the Italian beef sandwich to name a few. When you’ve got something as unique as the Italian beef sandwich that’s really good, you become known as “that place for the really great sandwich” that people crave.
When I owned my pizza and sub shops in Massachusetts, we had some friends who moved there from the Chicago area. Rita asked me if I had ever made Italian beef sandwiches, known pretty exclusively to the Chicago area. She was a little let down when I told her that I had not. I teased her about bringing me one from Chicago and told her I’d be happy to recreate it. Much to my surprise, after she and her family had gone back home for a vacation, she brought me a bag that contained all the makings of that famous sandwich. That’s how much she loved it and missed it. We’ll do just about anything for our favorite foods, won’t we? She had carefully wrapped each component up and froze it so I could examine and recreate it for her and her husband.
One of the components of a great Italian beef sandwich is the bread itself. Not just any roll will do. That’s where a lot of beef stands miss their mark. Use good quality bread.
Remember that this is a wet and sloppy sandwich and a bun that’s not going to turn into mush in 10 seconds is critical to this sandwich.
I couldn’t figure out who invented this popular sandwich, but the recipe was made popular by a South Side butcher during the Depression, in the late 1920s when food was scarce. It is available in hundreds of places around the city, but not usually found elsewhere. The Italian beef sandwich is like a cousin or big brother to the French dip, adding more components and depth to this mouth watering, unique and messy sandwich!
Italian beef itself is comprised of seasoned and slowly roasted lean beef (usually top sirloin, top round or bottom round) on a rack over a pan started with some seasoned beef stock. Roast the beef at about 30 minutes per pound. The roast should be seasoned with garlic, onion, dry basil and oregano, black pepper and crushed red pepper flakes at a minimum. Add some more seasonings as you see fit. You just want to make sure the beef is packed with flavor. Nobody wants a bland beef sandwich. What’s left at the bottom of the pan is sometimes referred to as gravy, but in most Chicago Italian households gravy is a known as tomato sauce. That’s why most folks call this broth au jus or “juice” for short.
To assemble this icon of a sandwich, the roasted beef should be sliced very thin and then drenched in the hot juice and placed on your hearty Italian roll. The beef should then be topped with sautéed green bell pepper slices and giardiniera, a simple condiment of hot pickles, serrano peppers, celery, green olives and spices packed in oil. There are several different brands and each vary slightly from the next but the giardiniera is an important ingredient which makes it an Italian beef.
There are a lot of Italian beef franchise locations opening because of their popularity, but understand that when you can season and roast your beef to a nice medium rare and dip it in its own juice, you’ll always offer a superior product than one of these stores using a pre-made beef, regulated to be cooked closer to a well done product –– not to mention the meat has probably been frozen which simply extracts most of the flavor.
Since its popularity is on the rise, consider offering this well-known Chicago staple. You’ll be surprised at how the floodgates might just open up in your restaurant, so be prepared.
Jeffrey Freehof owns The Garlic Clove Eatery in Evans, Georgia. He is a speaker and presenter at International Pizza Expo.